Ecological Chronotopes in Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day

Categories: Mama Day

In her essay “The Council of Pecans” from Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (2013), Kimberly Wall Kimmerer introduces the reader to a community of pecan trees that do not crop annually but at unpredictable intervals. This “boom and bust cycle” (15) is triggered by cues from the environment that include seasonal changes, predation patterns, and survival instincts. The trees do not adhere to a conception of time that philosopher Karen Barad describes as “a succession of discrete moments .

. . where each successive moment replaces the one before it” (Eco-Deconstruction 210), but to environmental markers that will allow them, and their ecosystem, to flourish. Barad’s definition of discreet, chronological time is inherent in a capitalist viewpoint where each moment is spent in service to producing capital. The island of Willow Springs in Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day (1989) adheres to an ecological clock reminiscent of the nut tree collective rather than clock-time.

Miranda “Mama” Day, for instance, remembers that her niece Ophelia comes home during “the season for butterflies” and recalls that “some years [the island] gets more than others, depending upon the wind and the amount of rain that spring.

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This year there’s so many it’s bound to be remembered as the summer when the woods bled gold” (148). Time is narrativized cyclically, through birth, growth, death, rebirth, and return. It progresses at its own pace on Willow Springs, giving the impression nothing ever really changes, yet the “same” is always being renewed. Naylor shows that when time is kept by ecological and personal registers, the inhabitants pay special attention to their environment and practice “Earth Democracy” as envisioned by Vandana Shiva in Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace (2005).

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Shiva’s teachings are particularly relevant for this novel; Earth Democracy includes practicing living economies, cultures, and democracies. These are processes, spaces, and places that we put into place so that “the earth’s resources are shared equitably to provide for our food and water needs and create meaningful livelihoods;” where we “reclaim [and defend] our fundamental freedoms;” “exercise our common responsibilities and duties to protect life on earth;” and “embrace our common . . . humanity, and our commonality with other species through soil, water, and air” (4-6).

Building on the idea of community that Kimmerer describes in “The Council of Pecans” and Shiva’s concept of “living economies, living cultures, and living democracies” (6), I will focus on the title character Miranda “Mama” Day’s reliance on the ecological chronotope of Willow Springs to heal, nurture, and lead the island’s inhabitants. The text shows that without the island’s ecosystem, Miranda’s healing power – and the inhabitants’ freedom – would be destroyed. I argue that the novel asserts a respect for an alternative understanding of temporality that is ignored by Western capitalist practices; an understanding that supports a sustainable and reciprocal relationship among the ecological, the spiritual, and the human. Most critical work on the novel concentrates on the spiritual and conjuring aspects of African American culture, as well as the narrative’s feminist contours and Shakespearean references. I take my argument in a new direction to focus on Mama Day’s eco-critical features and argue that the novel asserts a respect for an alternative understanding of temporality that is ignored by Western capitalist practices; an understanding that supports a sustainable and reciprocal relationship among the ecological, the spiritual, and the human. I will start with Willow Springs’ resistance to real-estate developers from the United States mainland and go on to describe how this resistance is influenced by Miranda’s attention to the ecosystem, her reliance on an ecological clock, and the island’s sense of collectivism.

An article in the Los Angeles Times from November 4th, 2016 described the devastating effects of real estate development on the Sea Islands along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. These developments accelerated beach erosion on the Sea Islands and blocked the sunlight that supported the phytoplankton crucial to the ecosystem. Most of the population depended on the fishing grounds and the local environment for their livelihood and lifestyle. But because of rising taxes and diminished fishing hatcheries, many of the locals were forced to sell their land or take minimum-wage jobs in resorts. The article continues that “In 400 years of survival among the swampy marshes of the southeast coast of the United States, the Gullah-Geechee people knew better than to build on the shoreline . . .

History proved they should stop at the marshes, 100 yards inland.” These islands were the inspiration for the imaginary Willow Springs because of their Gullah-Geechee African American culture. Their culture still retains strong influences from their African ancestors who were forcibly brought over during the slave trade. Their creole language, cuisine, farming and fishing traditions, and even their folk beliefs diverge from the dominant United States culture, and offer an alternative way of life on Willow Springs. Naylor even references four of the real-life islands (St. Helena, Daufuskie, St John’s and Hilton Head) as being overwhelmed by investors and new arrivals over-developing the beaches and the rich fishing beds. The novel begins with Willow Springs resisting developmental expansion from the United States mainland. The island’s citizens are unwilling to sell their property to developers [who] started swarming over here like sand files at a Sunday picnic . . . ain’t nobody on them islands benefited. And the only dark faces you see now in them “vacation paradises” is the ones cleaning the toilets and cutting the grass. On their own land, mind you, their own land. (5-6)

It is important to note that Miranda refuses to sell the island’s “shoreline” to the developers. Naylor highlights the economic exploitation and the ongoing environmental erosion on the Sea Islands by having Willow Springs refuse the mainland’s invasive capitalist tendencies. Shiva describes the destruction of the Sea Island’s natural habitat and the resultant poverty on the island’s population as follows: “When reality is replaced by abstract constructions created by the dominant powers in society, manipulation of nature and society for profits and power becomes easy. The welfare of real people and real societies are replaced with the welfare of corporations” (112). The Sea Islands, like Willow Springs, are, or were, an ecologically-minded society. Unfortunately, capitalism separates people from nature and economy, which results in developments planned for profit rather than a holistic approach that takes into account all life, human and non-human.

The novel’s narrative structure has an unusual timeframe. Mama Day begins in “August 1999” (12), but after the narrator tells the reader to “listen. . . really listen” (12), the voices of Ophelia “Cocoa” Day and her husband George take us back to their time together between 1981 and 1985, when George visited Willow Springs for the first time and died. Willow Springs remembers that year as the time when “Cocoa left, and he stayed . . . it was the year of the last big storm that blew [Mama Day’s] pecan trees down and even caved in the roof of the other place” (9). We hear the disembodied voice of a deceased man. The narrative, therefore, resides in the liminal space between the material and the spiritual worlds and makes it possible to conceive time in an organic rather than discreet manner.

The novel’s liminality allows Willow Springs to exist as a part of, and separate from, the United States, and as being both in the material world and “nowhere . . . like forever” (174-175). George is unable to find the island “on any map . . . [that] . . . it was missing from among all those islands dotting the coastline. What county claimed it?” he wondered (174). The island is inhabited by the descendants of slaves, and as such insist on staying separate from the mainland. There is a single, tenuous bridge that connects Willow Springs to the border of Georgia and South Carolina. Otherwise, the island considers itself independent. Since Europe and the Americas used maps as tools to organize and divide geography to advance the colonial project, the liminal world of Willow Springs cannot be explained in discreet terms of materiality, linearity, and order. The life on Willow Springs offers an alternative existence to a capitalist understanding of time and relationships; one that allows for the spiritual realm to reside alongside the material and natural worlds.

Miranda is the unofficial leader and matriarch of Willow Springs. She exists in a liminal space, traversing borders between the mythical, the magical and the real, past and present. As a conjurer and healer, Miranda communes with natural forces with a single motion of her walking stick and foresees the coming of natural disasters. She channels the environment to communicate with her ancestors: she “listens” to a “blanket of morning glory vines tangled among the sweet peas” and knows her uncle is buried in that spot; or “the breeze coming up from the [sea] swirls . . . answers around her feet” (152). When Miranda walks through the forest and points her walking stick, “A wave over a patch of zinnias and the scarlet petals take flight . . . Winged marigolds follow them into the air . . .

A thump of the stick: morning glories start to sing” (152). Her mysterious abilities are not only inherited from her legendary great-grandmother, the healer and conjure woman Sapphira Wade, but also from her “acute knowledge and sensitivity to her environment” (Benito et al 141) as Benito, Manzanas, and Simal explain. Miranda must be attentive to her environment in order to interpret it, a fact that is affirmed when she realizes that she has missed the omens foretelling the coming of the big storm. Preparing the dough for some peach pies, she is overwhelmed by a premonition of death and by the feeling that “something else was telling her something and if it just got a little louder she was willing to listen.” Throwing in a pinch of salt and sprinkling some ice water into the bowl, suddenly “everything stops . . . the pictures move backward” and “it all falls into place . . . From the dripping water to the clumped-up salt to the white foam washing up on shore at the east side of the island . . . This was gonna be a big big storm” (226-227).

Miranda’s attention to her environment reveals her attention to an alternative concept of time. Time on Willow Springs is not understood as an abstract concept but is marked in lived experience and interpreted through change in the landscape. After George and Ophelia are married, he is puzzled with the way a single day could stretch itself out to the point of eternity in your mind, all the while years melted down into a fraction of a second. The clocks and calendars we had designed were incredibly crude attempts to order our reality . . . we were still slavishly tied to the cycles of the sun and the moon. All of those numbers were reassuring, but they were hardly real. (157)

George goes on to remember the moment when he became comfortable sharing his life and space with his wife; it was when “[she] had started growing fresh herbs on the windowsill and in the back yard” (158). Ophelia uses the “fresh herbs” in recipes Miranda and grandmother Abigail suggest for George’s weak heart. It takes effort and time to grow the herbs; they convey love, concern, and health and can be seen as an extension of Willow Springs’ nurturing environment. The herbs also represent Miranda’s knowledge of their healing properties, knowledge that has been shared through the generations since Sapphira Wade and the enslaved people tended to each other’s wounds. This is knowledge that Kimmerer calls “our traditional knowledge and lifeways, the bones of our ancestors, our sustaining plants . . . our pharmacy, our library” (16-17).

Miranda also incorporates time into her healing practice when she was helping Bernice get pregnant. “We’re giving her time, Abigail” Miranda tells her sister, “so much time to use that she won’t have any left over at the end of the day to think about anything but a good night’s sleep [and] nature’s gonna do the rest” (95). She makes Bernice churn butter from scratch, grind corn to make cornmeal, and plant seeds whenever her mother-in-law is unkind. Miranda’s prescription forces Bernice to take valuable time to rest her mind and heal her body by planting, growing, harvesting, and cooking. These are household tasks, but these are also jobs that nurture her body and her environment. These tasks concretize time and measure change in a spiritual and fruitful manner rather than an abstract number on a clock.

When Ophelia talks about Willow Springs not changing, the readers know from Abigail’s letters to her granddaughter in New York that change does occur, but it is perceived differently. Abigail writes, “It’s what we call in these parts a slow fall. The weather’s slow about changing . . . So it’s too early to dig the sweet potatoes and too late to chance a fresh crop of tomatoes” (66). The slow fall means that the harvest on Willow Springs has been delayed. Miranda is annoyed for not listening to the weather and complains “I hate this old tricky weather. Throws everything off” (67). She has to plan the composting, planting, and harvesting for each season. Her lack of attention results in a costly mistake: she has planted young plants during a slight frost which will harm them. The plant life depends on her for care almost as much as she depends on them for sustenance.

I would like to end with the community of Willow Springs, and how Miranda’s role as the Willow Springs’ healer and leader is not an isolated affair. The storm of 1985, when George died, had devastated a lot of businesses, leaving many people unemployed. The community’s strength and unity are reflected in the annual Candle Walk, a celebration that has changed through the generations, but has maintained its communal spirit. The entire island comes together and “folks take to the road—strolling, laughing, and talking—holding some kind of light in their hands” (110). The community uses this moment as an opportunity to contribute and “get help without feeling obliged” (110). For them, “it weren’t no hardship giving something back . . . as long as it came from the earth and the work of your own hands” (111). This collective is reminiscent of Kimmerer’s story of the symbiotic relationship between the pecan trees, the animals, and the people, noting that “all flourishing is mutual . . . all are beneficiaries of reciprocity” (211).

The community’s value and strength are intimately tied to the environment. The people of Willow Springs share what they grow. When Mama Day tends to Carman Rae’s baby boy, she instructs the young mother to feed the baby with food grown from “wild grapevines and cherry trees in that ravine below the house, and this time of year peaches and plums is to be had for the asking” (194). The novel does not consider these trees as private commodities but as communal resources and spaces. Willow Springs’ culture is akin to Shiva’s concept of an ecologically minded culture that demonstrates “we are the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe” (5). When Miranda and the inhabitants of Willow Springs refuse developmental expansion on their island, they practice Shiva’s concept of earth democracy. In other words, they “maintain control over [their] food and water” because “ecological survival is the necessary project for . . . freedom” (5) from capitalism’s destructive tendencies. By marking time ecologically and personally, Miranda and the people of Willow Springs protect their environment, which in turn provides them with sustenance and shelter. As Kimmerer writes: “We reciprocate the gift by taking care of the grove, protecting it from harm, planting seeds so that new groves will shade the prairie and feed the squirrels” (21).

Updated: Jan 28, 2022
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Ecological Chronotopes in Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day. (2022, Jan 28). Retrieved from

Ecological Chronotopes in Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day essay
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